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Mind the Divide

Updated: Aug 28, 2022

Mind the Divide (entire article written in February 2022, here)

By Catalina Gardescu, PR Specialist at Ideas Into Action

For twenty-one years I worked in an international school in Eastern Europe. A “local hire,” I started in a secretarial position, becoming the manager of admissions and external relations twelve years later. Five directors, several principals, business managers and teachers later, when I left, I had personally met the families of all 900 students enrolled. While so many things changed around me, one did not - the divide between the foreign and local staff.

In reflecting on the above, this quote resonated with me very much: "So, here's the question: We don't intentionally create cultures in our families, schools, communities, and organisations that fuel disengagement and disconnection, so how does it happen? […] The gap starts here: We can't give people what we don't have. Who we are matters immeasurably more than what we know or who we want to be. The space between our practiced values (what we're actually doing, thinking, and feeling) and our aspirational values (what we want to do, think and feel) is the value gap, or what I call 'the disengagement divide'. It's where we lose our employees, our clients, our students, our teachers, our congregations, and even our children."

Schools educate, they grow engaged, inspired and compassionate individuals - as many display in their missions. Constant change is part of their nature, and so international schools have an exceptionally hard time building and sustaining healthy cultures. The turnover of staff delays or even stunts this process in an international school more than in other institutions. My question is: When it comes to local staff, do international schools align with their visions and missions?

Schools are learning oriented cultures – and it is precisely these that research has identified as ripe to be diverse and inclusive organizations. We can talk about seeds of a sustainable and meaningful culture only when the learning organization engages all its members in the process. Their origin and culture aside, teachers and school administrators share their passion for learning. Local staff, with the longest seniority and institutional memory, are seldom involved in vision driven activities at the school. And this accentuates the divide.

In her 2018 doctoral dissertation, Dr. Tracy Arnold, Middle School Principal at AEL in Lincoln, Buenos Aires, presents research on the “contributing factors to workers’ perceptions of distributive fairness in international schools” and shows how “this impacts the collaboration between local and foreign-hire teachers. Variables such as perceived compensation differential, contributions of different staff groups, willingness to collaborate and perception of communication systems amongst others were considered.” These are strong barriers in schools’ journey towards closing the divide. Dr. Arnold shows how “feelings of inequitable treatment may be demotivating […]” and “may result in workers showing less dedication to their work or behaviors that undermine the organization.”

I surveyed 56 members of local staff in international schools in Europe, Africa and Asia, trying to understand the current reality. Respondents ranged from leadership to support, and experience in their institutions from under five to over twenty years.

Over half (60.7%) of respondents feel represented and 98.2% know their school’s values. While the majority (84%) know their school’s vision and mission, fewer know about their school’s curriculum - 66.1%. Many describe welcoming environments, feeling appreciated, respected and valued (87.5%). Others comments reflect a lack of communication, focus on teaching staff and micromanagement. Many write about being appreciated and belonging at the level of their teams, not the school leadership.

Changes in leadership are shown to affect feelings of support and appreciation. Of the respondents surveyed, 60.7% feel that the school makes the best of their abilities and potential and that professional development is tailored to their needs. This happens more for locals in teaching or administrative staff and not necessarily for other functions. Around half (44.6%) are included in transition activities and 64.3% in orientation, while 78.6% are included in activities related to the school vision, mission and marketing. Of all respondents, 48.2% take part in decision making or receive communications in their native language (53.6%).

Locals in international schools work in a whirlwind: goodbyes, hellos, excitement and disengagement and they are left wondering where to hide the excitement of past projects and how to start new ones they don't understand or want. Schools have transition processes for foreign teachers, but little thought is given to the local support staff, the “stayers”.

So, institutions with well-established practices, how do we even start to change? Small steps can transform culture:

  1. Be a learner: As a new leader, reach your entire workforce. Whenever change occurs, people fear losing stability and a well engaged local staff can keep stability in check.

  2. Connect genuinely: Engage with local stayers – they are going through a transition too. The change of school leadership challenges the way things are done, and everyone needs to be onboard.

  3. Be a risk taker, give people agency: Always consider your entire workforce in campaigns. Empower with knowledge, tools and trust and you will benefit tenfold.

  4. Work to create a psychologically safe and purpose driven environment: Small, purposeful actions make the difference between a workforce that is simply “doing a job” and a truly engaged one: representation in meetings, translated, inclusive communications.

  5. Celebrate your inclusiveness: Employees who feel they belong further the good reputation of the institution. Get to know local culture and offer the stage to your locals in gatherings.

Our young are smart. They never learn from what we say, they always learn from what we do. And the thing is, it may all seem overwhelming at first but all we need is one single step in the right direction.

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